There was an alcove in the front of the tender, above the bow, that mariners call a dodger. Eva and Lucaya made it into a clubhouse, draping a sarong across the small opening to make a curtain. They filled a bucket with water and made a mini-aquarium with seaweed and baby crabs and shrimp.
And there was “whale time,” when our banter ceased, and we’d silently scan the surface for a breach or a fluke or a blow- hole. One afternoon Lucaya slept on one of the benches, her head nestled on a rolled-up windbreaker. As the boat rocked gently, small waves made lapping sounds. Cloe sat with her, seeming to doze a bit too. But even when her eyes shut mo- mentarily, her hand stayed on her daughter’s shoulder, should the boat lurch and Lucaya be in danger of rolling off the bench. Down below, the whale calves had their own way of settling in with their mothers. Charlie told me he’d seen a calf hover just below the mother’s belly and the mother wrap her pectoral fins around her calf to tuck it into position. The humpback’s long gray-and-white fins are not stiff like oars. They’re like our arms, with highly mobile shoulders, elbows, wrists,
and long finger bones.
Occasionally we’d see the other tender from our boat. It was being used by a film crew from Brazil.Why were they on the Silver Bank? Because the whales in Brazil wouldn’t let pho- tographers near them underwater, due to the long history of whale hunting there. It was only in 2008 that Brazil declared all Brazilian waters a safe sanctuary for whales and dolphins.
The sanctuary encompassing the Silver Bank had been in effect for almost thirty years. Established in 1986, it was the first humpback whale sanctuary in the world. Like some whale Shangri-La, it had eluded the harpoons.This breeding ground, “delivery room,” and cradle had remained a safe haven.
Whales sleep, but they can’t do it for long, otherwise they’d drown. It’s believed that, like dolphins, only one hemisphere of the whale’s brain sleeps. So they rest, but they’re never completely asleep the way we are. We breathe automatically, but whales are conscious breathers, slipping to the surface intermittently, even as they rest. Inspired by that, Gene had named his operation Conscious Breath Adventures.
The mother, Gene told us, “nurses her calf to the tune of fifty gallons of milk a day, which is very, very thick, very rich milk.The whole time that the females are down on the Silver Bank—and the males, for that matter—they are not feeding, they are fasting.” By time the mother reaches the northern latitudes to feed with her calf, she’ll have lost a third of her body weight.
One more thing—subtle, but unmistakable. Having kids on the boat changed our behavior. Somehow we were more polite, generous, and positive. The girls brought out the best in us. It was as if we’d shined up the chrome bumpers of our personalities because there were kids on board. There was more patience, more kindness, more sharing. More “best.”
We all think we do our best. But children bring out an even “better best” in us. They push the seesaw in the direction of hope, encourage us to take responsibility not just for our lives but also for the future. And no matter how many times a pandering politician utters the same words disingenuously, the bottom line is it’s true.Truth never wears out. It’s inextinguishable.
One of the best spots to sit was on top of the dodger, just above the bow. It had a great view. Eva was sitting up there one day, and I scrambled up to join her. She was wearing my red fleece jacket to stay warm.The oversized sleeves squished into a thick, cozy wrap around her small arms; the collar rose up above her ears.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Seven,” she said with a precocious glance, like, Couldn’t you make more interesting small talk?
We quietly looked out at the horizon, searching for whales. Charlie leaned his forearms against the top of the dodger behind us, his camera poised, should a whale suddenly breach. We were all lost in silent, ripe waiting.
There are questions in life you don’t answer with words.You answer them with how you live. For me, the biggest one had always been,“What truly is love?” Now I had another to guide me:“What if I lived as if my voice mattered?”
The horizon was ultramarine blue, speckled with light. I looked back at Charlie.The wind blew his thick black hair up and away from his forehead. He looked up at me and winked.
Remember the garage? When I wanted to quit the book?
And I’d swung this deal with myself that it’d be like some wild motorcycle ride, and that I could ease up on the throttle when the journey came to an end?
I sighed. The book’s finishing, but this journey, this love of ocean, this deepened love of life, I’ve barely begun ….
“B-r-e-a-c-h!” Eva squealed, pointing to the horizon. The burst of water looked like a depth charge. Forty tons of whale leaping completely out of the water and plunging back cer- tainly would mimic that.
“It’s a rowdy group,” Gene called out. It was a group of male whales competing for the attention of a female. As we got closer, the water seemed to boil with energy.At least nine or ten whales swiftly crosscut each other. Looking downward, I noticed elongated slivers of turquoise moving underneath our boat.
“Gene,” I asked,“what’s that?”
They were the bright white of the sixteen-foot fins seen through the tinting of the bank’s water. It was actually more than twenty whales that had gathered. At any one time, only half of them came to the surface to breathe.
Whales in a rowdy group will breach on top of each other and rub the tubercles—the knobby protrusions on their chins—raw. We could see scuffs and cuts on their dorsal fins and skin from their oceanic barroom brawl. And while it was all rough-and-tumble, they were very precise about whom to push around.The lady they were competing for was off-limits, easy to identify because of her unblemished torso. And not once did a whale bang up against the side of our tender.
“They don’t have arms to throw punches, but they have pec fins and their big tail flukes,” Gene said.“They also have what’s called the anvil, that bony knob on the bottom of their chin. They hit each other with that.”
The energy whipped up, higher and higher, whales swirling and banging into each other and breaching and diving be- neath our boat. “Just think of it,” Gene called out ebulliently. “There’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of raging humpback whale all around us!”
They were hot on the trail of that millennia-old tradition that never runs dry: mating.The unit of measure for testosterone levels would not have been milligrams—more like gallon jugs. It was late spring, and many of the females had already mated and left for the northern feeding grounds.The mothers will often be the last the leave, lingering until they deem their calves fit to make the journey north.
But single females? Fewer and fewer as you get later into spring. “The competition,” Gene said, “can be fierce.” There was a computer programmer from Texas, Bryan Hager, on the boat. He leaned back, stroked his thick beard, and chuckled with a self-deprecating, mock-Texas drawl,“Da girls … dey all get purdier at closin’ time.”
The last night on the Silver Bank I slept fitfully. My throat felt tight when I woke. I climbed up to the top deck. The night before, a group of us had lingered there and gazed up at the sky. Freed from the glare of urban sprawl or even buoys or light- houses, the sky lay naked above us. I’d never seen stars so bright.
Sometimes change happens so fast you don’t see it, and then suddenly it hits you all at once. In the morning light, all I could see in all directions was the steel-blue horizon. But it was no longer flat. It wasn’t the straight edge that so many thought Columbus would sail right off of when he sailed west from Spain.
It was curved.
If my travels had done anything, it was that I could really feel that curve now—it was as vivid and tactile as the metal railing beneath my hands and the gusts of wind on my fore- head. I turned my back to the just-risen sun.To the west, the earth made an arc to our home in California, and farther still, Papua and the Malay archipelago of Indonesia. To the north, an arc led to the Turks and Caicos and, farther on, to where I was born, New York City. To the east, another arc stretched thousands of miles to the Mediterranean and North Africa.
You know those toys for toddlers with round and square pegs that fit into matching holes? It was like that: the cognitive leap when the round peg fits in the round hole.An irreversible moment.
I’d finally gotten the shape of things, the mystery at the edge, the one that flickered through blinds that always seemed to snap shut too soon.That mystery, that beauty, it was calling me to a deeper, truer home. I’d finally come home in a way that would have been unfathomable before. It was “the place.”
It was a little spinning sphere with a thin glaze of water held to it by gravity, punctuated by archipelagos of islands and mountains and tundra and plains and deserts. And that fluid, transparent medium, intermingled with sun and oxygen, that carved riverbeds through mountains and circulated through seas and pulsed through our veins: that gives birth to life.
Our clapboard house with musical instruments and travel photographs on the walls, where our dog likes to stretch out in a sunny spot on the oak floor and our greenhouse teems with seedlings—our little home—it was nested inside that bigger home within layers and layers and layers of life.
I’d learned to let a mystery be a mystery and a longing be a longing. Better to be inarticulate, but true. So I won’t try to explain it too much except to say that I’m so glad I kept trying to listen to that mysterious longing. It brought me home and closer to others in ways I never would have imagined possible. I’ll keep feeling that mystery, keep longing for it. I’ll never want to extinguish it. It’s life longing to be, to connect, reconnect, beat the odds, and push forward anew.
“From Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2015 by Liz Cunningham. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”
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